LeBron James had a message to deliver to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night.
Early in the first quarter, as the Suns tried to save a ball from going out of bounds on the sidelines, James grabbed the looping loose ball and went down court all alone to deliver a resounding slam dunk.
By the time the quarter was over, James had 10 of his 23 points, placing his imprint on a resounding 109-102 Los Angeles Lakers win that tied the first-round NBA playoff series at a game apiece in Phoenix Suns Arena.
James silenced the crowd of 11,919, which was stunned in the end by the turn of events. It was the largest crowd of the season in a $230 million recently renovated building that seats 18,422 for basketball. When the series returns for Game 5 on Tuesday, capacity will increase to 16,000.
James ended the night hitting a 27-foot three pointer with 49.8 seconds left to put the game irrevocably out of reach. With that, he lifted his arms toward the rafters and taunted Suns fans.
“It’s playoff basketball and obviously there are a lot of emotions,” James said. “Every possession is so key and to be able to make a big play in a big moment is great for our ballclub.”
Closer to home, Game 3 is at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Thursday night, and James placed the Suns and the rest of the league on notice that the Lakers are perfectly capable of defending the NBA title they won last year after two months playing without fans in the Orlando bubble. It’s the first home playoff game for the Lakers since 2013 sans last week’s play-in victory over the Warriors that cemented the seventh seed and the matchup against the No. 2-seeded Suns.
The Lakers didn’t even have fans at home games until April 15 because of health and safety protocols issued by the state of California and are still playing at limited capacity. Those rules have been relaxed locally as coronavirus cases and deaths have diminished. Major League Baseball games in Southern California will begin being played at full capacity next month. For example, the Dodgers have had about 15,000 capacity at nearby Dodger Stadium this season with fully vaccinated sections being implemented in both venues.
“Our Lakers faithful during that play-in game made it feel like a playoff game,” James said. “Obviously, this is a different situation. Us coming home after evening up this series for the first time in eight years it’ll be pretty special for our fans, just to have our fans in the building and make us proud. That’s what I came here for is to play a playoff game in front of the Lakers faithful.”
LeBron has won everywhere he’s played—Miami, Cleveland and Los Angeles—and he proved again Tuesday why, even at the advanced NBA age of 36 and with miles of pounding hardwood on his body, he’s still worth every penny of the $39.22 million the Lakers are paying him this season.
“I will just say, he’s a great player, and an all-time great,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “He shows it time and time again. He played big minutes. We played him when we wanted to play him. He really picked up the load in that first quarter. He doesn’t typically play the whole quarter, but for him to do that and play the whole fourth and still have the juice to make big shots. Big guts in those situations.”
After more than a year of social distancing and crowd restrictions things are definitely beginning to normalize.
It was a night for “big guts” from the NBA elite. About 2,500 miles away at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the Nets wiped out the Boston Celtics, 130-108, behind 26 points from Kevin Durant, 25 points from Joe Harris and 20 points from James Harden. Kyrie Irving added 15, and the Nets took a 2-0 lead in that series. The Nets played to 14,774 fans in their 17,732 capacity building. The Knicks had 15,047 at 19,812 capacity for basketball Madison Square Garden in a losing effort to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of their first-round series on Sunday. Game 2 is Wednesday night.
Those four Nets players are earning $129.1 million combined this season.
Likewise, the Lakers had a distribution of their own wealth on Tuesday night from a trio that earns $87.4 million between them.
Anthony Davis had a game-high 34 points, rebounding from his admittedly subpar 13-point performance in a 99-90 Game 1 loss. Dennis Scroder had 24, and James finished off his evening with two fourth-quarter daggers, a fadeaway 18-foot baseline jumper and a 27-foot three pointer with 49.8 seconds left to put the game irrevocably out of reach.
James and Davis combined for 57 points, as opposed to 31 in the Game 1 defeat.
James hit a fadeaway baseline jumper when the Suns pulled back within one with 4:04 to play. After that, the Lakers went on a 7-0 run, with Davis scoring the other five points on a three-pointer of his own and a pair of free throws.
It was a clutch performance by two of the top players in the game at the moment the Lakers needed it most.
“You never want to get into a scuffle with these [Suns] because they can score on you very quickly, and we can, too,” Davis said about that sequence. “We leaned on me and LeBron very heavily at that point. Fortunately, we were able to hold on and pull this one out.”